Country becomes cool

Growing up I sat by the Philco table top radio and sang along with my Dad and my brother Gordon to the top ten pop songs on “The Hit Parade.” In high school Dick Davis and I along with whoever we could convince to join us tried to imitate the cool jazz sounds of The Four Freshmen, and we dug Stan Kenton’s jazz band. More than a few years later I made the investment in time and concentration to develop a taste for some classical music, especially Pepe Romero or John Williams on guitar.

Meanwhile another musical genre floating through the air was either ignored or ridiculed by me and my friends. Sometimes I had to sit through it despite myself, such as a church party when a rancher, member of our congregation, and his wife would render something about “You’re as hard to hold as quick silver when you kiss and run away.” Mom would sometimes tune into “The Old Corral” on KSL radio as we were stumbling into the kitchen to get ready for school. If child abuse had been invented back then I would have accused her of it. Waking up to “Pistol Packing Mamma lay that pistol down” or Eddie Arnold yodeling “Cattle Call” was not the way I would choose to start my day.

This hillbilly music was beneath my dignity until the first summer I worked in the mountains of the Idaho panhandle. Stuck in a tent deep in the forest seven miles from the nearest road, we made our own entertainment. My ukulele and I were welcomed by this captive audience. A bunch of these boys were from Texas and Oklahoma. They wanted to hear their music. I like to honor requests, particularly when they come from people like Carl McClure the heavyweight golden gloves boxing champion of Oklahoma. I played and we sang “Tennessee Waltz”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, and “I’m Movin’ on” until my fingers were sore and my strings were sagging.

In the process a strange change crept over me. I fell in love with country music. This was, as the song says, when “Country Wasn’t Cool”, to quote Barbara Mandrell and George Jones. Back home at the end of the summer my friends thought mountain fever had warped my brain.

Whatever the mental condition, it has never left me. For a while I was a d.j. on a country music station. This sunk pickin’ and singing’ even deeper into my soul.

And why not? Look at the messages tucked inside those tunes. Waylon Jennings psychological therapy, “I’ve always been crazy, but it’s kept me from going insane.” Tammy Wynette’s marriage counseling, “Stand by your man.” What husband would slay dragons for a woman who sang that for her creed? Or Annie Murray singing, “You needed me.” Kenny Rogers financial advice from the gambler, “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” If I had followed that counsel in 2008 before my humble stock portfolio went over the cliff, I might not have been singing, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Oh well, in the words of Roger Miller, “You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd, but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.” Could have been worse, I could be singing with Buck Owens, “I got the hungry’s for your love, and I’m waitin’ in your welfare line.”

But, “A country boy can survive” according to Hank Williams Jr., And when things don’t go my way I find wisdom in Garth Brook’s observation, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

And, of course, country music would go broke without broken hearts. “Willie Nelson’s “Blue eyes crying in the rain,” “Cold, Cold Heart” way back from Hank Williams Senior, and the anonymous classic, “I got tears in my ears from lying on my back, cryin’ as I think about you.”

But sometimes the gods of love smile down, and romance erupts. Ernest Tubb offering to “Waltz across Texas” with his beloved, Sonny Kershaw crowning his wife, “The “Queen of my double wide Trailer,” What woman could resist Aaron Wilburn’s declaration of devotion, “If my nose was runnin’ money honey, I’d blow it all on you.”

Our musical group The Three D’s, once toured with a show that also featured a jazz combo and a country band. I walked into a rehearsal of the jazz group once and they were imitating the country band. They were breaking each other up at how corny the music was. What they didn’t know was that the joke was on them. They could no more play country than the country boys could finger the complicated riffs and melodies of jazz. True, country music may be simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Because as Sara Evans sings, it’s “Three chords and the truth.” The three chords may be easy, but the truth has to come from the depths of your soul.